Tuesday, June 06, 2017

Nexus so natural

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Shefali Tripathi Mehta, DH News Service, Jun 4 2017, 0:08 IST

Changes in the seasons brought in festivities which signified the importance of nature. Students were taught to draw inspiration from their surroundings and use it either for language, art or performing art classes. The concept of planting of saplings and ploughing of fields during Briksharopan in the month of August was introduced to the students of Vishwa Bharti as part of the festivities and everyone participated in the grand colourful event. In our house, we have always seen water retained after washing pulses and vegetables being used for watering plants.

Several species of birds have their homes in our garden and the squirrels know where their breakfast is kept each morning. It is simple for my father to point to the differences in the pattern of rocks and landscapes just as the knowledge of medicinal plants and uses comes naturally to my mother. Devika Raghave, whose parents grew up at Santiniketan, recounts.

One man’s vision

Rabindranath Tagore, when he set up the Viswa Bharati University in Santiniketan in 1921, wanted to create an environment for study where students would learn not just from books, but from experiences, and feel one with nature by being aware of the trees, the birds and the animals. Before he set up the university in 1901, he had started a school where classes were held in the sublime serenity of nature, under the trees. Tagore believed that ‘the highest education is that which does not merely give us information, but makes our life in harmony with all existence’.

In close to a hundred years since Tagore envisioned this, we have, all around us, only witnessed the brutal destruction of nature by humans. All our modern day environmental problems are a result of our relationship with nature gone wrong. We have abused our rivers, forests, trees and animals, using them selfishly and offering no nurturing care in return for what we receive. In the name of development, we have built structure upon structure so our cities choke for air and rains flood our homes; we have encroached into forests leaving no safe haven for wild animals, so leopards walk into our concrete colonies and children’s schools looking for food and water.

Our collective greed has led us to forget how our culture and festivals were meant to foster our connect with nature. We have lost sight of the essence of traditions and engaged ourselves with rituals. One such example is the festival of Naga Panchami, which dates back to when humans still lived in close proximity with nature and wild animals.

With the advent of monsoons, as the rain filled their pits, the snakes came out. There must have been awe and fear and reverence apart from the status the snake holds in religion and culture. The worship of the snake or cobra may have begun to prevent people from killing the snakes that may otherwise not harm humans. Today, it has become a mindless ritual. Snake charmers capture snakes from the wilderness, pull out their fangs, making them incapable of living on their own in the wild again, and bring the helpless creatures in cramped baskets to our doorsteps so we can feed them milk.

Forging lost connections

Anuragini Nagar, who works in the social development sector and is a naturalist at heart, says, “I wanted to explore the ways in which animals, birds and flora support each other. Last year, I joined a group that goes on wildlife tours with experts. The first was a herpetofauna trip that offered me a glimpse into the world of reptiles and amphibians. Since then, I have been on three birding trips and apart from all the beauty and wonder I came across, I discovered how birds have adapted to the change — from habitat, to beaks, to eating habits. So it is with nature.” These trips have made her aware of the deep linkages between nature and humans and the fact that there is a space for every being on this planet.

Priya Ramakrishnan Anand, also a busy full-time professional, takes out time to trek to the mountains at least twice every year. Priya says that amidst the unspoilt beauty of the mountains, surrounded only by the awe-inspiring stillness of nature, the mind slows down to absorb the images and the essence of nature.

MapleTree Farms, a farmers’ combine of about 70 farmers that delivers fresh, organically grown farm produce to almost 60 Bengaluru households, insists on the buyers visiting the farm to see the practices they follow in order to not harm the soil or disturb the delicate eco-system. Shankar, who leads this initiative, issues a light threat every once in a while, warning his buyers that he’s going to make one yearly visit to the farm compulsory for them to continue being supplied. It is his way of facilitating our lost connection with nature.

A similar goal was in the mind of the young entrepreneurs of Linger, a chain of holiday homes with the tagline and philosophy — ‘do nothing vacations’. Samir Shisodia, co-founder, tells me that “boredom is the start of awesome possibilities”. So their ‘properties’ do not offer ‘packages’ — there is no television, no snooker tables or chlorinated swimming pools. There are, however, hills to trek to, farms to visit, villagers to talk with, and streams to bathe in or to fish.

They encourage the use of locally grown food and offer local dishes. He says their guests are almost always happy and grateful for the experience of being led back to the simple pleasures offered free in nature — that of sitting in the dark, spotting fireflies, soaking in a sudden shower, getting to know trees and birds by their names.

Healing the earth

We are all naturalists and nature lovers at heart, but in the mad rush that is our life, we have forgotten to stop and smell the flowers. But increasingly, people are reviewing and altering their lifestyles to live more in harmony with nature, to harm it less. From completely environmentally responsible, resource-efficient buildings to organic farms that not only give us chemical-free produce but also prevent the depletion of natural nutrients from the soil; from groups promoting eco-friendly lifestyle choices to those working to save our rivers and lakes, trees and animals — people in their own way, big and small, are trying to heal the planet — one band-aid at a time.

According to recent news reports, about 200 nature-loving volunteers came together to make seed balls on Earth Day in Bengaluru. To reverse the effects of deforestation and climate change, this is an effective and inexpensive way of planting trees. Seeds of local varieties of trees that are suited to the climate of the region are rolled into soil and manure and then these laddoos are tossed into forests and barren land before the monsoons. These germinate and take root. The germination rate is believed to be 70%. This no-till method is also said to prevent degradation of soil.

Top of form

Many farm owners have opened up their farms for visits and stay. Families, especially children brought up in polluted, concrete cities, get an opportunity to get close to nature and partake of the simple pleasures of life like the company of farm animals and learning how fruit and vegetables that they consume, grow. Many groups organise nature, tree and bird walks to spread awareness about our natural surroundings.

All life in harmony

“The basis of a man’s nature is almost always... the soil from which he draws sustenance, the air which he breathes, the sights, sounds, habits to which he is accustomed. They mould him...” (Sri Aurobindo)

High-schooler Abeer Khan, when she came to know that about 10% of the waste in her city of Bhopal comprised single-use plastic bags, began raising awareness about it and offered alternatives. Starting from her school, she has facilitated the ban of plastic bags in two other localities of the city.

More schools than before are promoting learning through experiences; where students understand their linkages with nature and become aware of how human activities threaten the environment and animals.

There are more outdoor programmes that help students make sustainable lifestyle choices, explore eco-systems, and become aware of the natural world. But because this learning too is eventually geared towards the examination and score-based school system that aims to only better-‘equip’ students for their performance in exams, the crucial takeaway is lost. A child who learns about water conservation in school does not stop to think before leaving the water tap on at home.

In the absence of the fundamental sensibility of appreciation, wonder and regard for nature; of living our lives in harmony with it, we cause irreversible harm.

Long ago, we were walking on the ghats of Benaras and munching peanuts. Soon our hands were full of the empty shells and there was no trash bin in sight. We kept walking, holding on to our litter, displeased that we could eat no more. Our local guide and companion laughed at our predicament and pointed to the goats that were following us. They were polishing off the shells he was tossing away, leaving the ghats clean. But city life, where our segregation is complete when every bit of land, every tree and animal is property and not our partner, does not offer such simple solutions.

The young face

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Shefali Tripathi Mehta, March 12, 2017 0:15 IST
Driving force
When I was still in college, a friend who had joined the workforce recounted that when he refused to take a favour from a customer, the older colleagues in office mocked him and said that they were all like that when young and that everyone ‘learns’ with time.

It is true that everyone learns the ways of the world, and with time the shine of integrity and hard work may begin to dull, but there is always hope that the young will bring fresh energy and ideas into a system controlled by people set in their ways.

The Economic Survey of 2013-14 estimated that India will become the youngest country by 2021, with 64% of its working population in the working age group of 20-35 years. The millennials, as they are referred to, are just not separated by years but by the unique setting of the environment they grew up in. These are first generation digital natives whose knowledge and awareness of social, political, human, environment and world affairs has made them self-assured, assertive, with a mind of their own, and clear life and career aspirations. They are also somewhat entitled, vocal and impatient because growing up in a world connected through the internet, much of what they need has been at their fingertips.

At the cusp of this demographic transition, there is an immense expectation, a promise of the change, development and progress that previous generations too dreamed of but could not completely effectuate. How will a country with 29 as the median age take it forward? What can we expect?

Fair & equal

Their learning, which has been more participatory with discussions, interactions, and hands-on experiences, is more equipping and empowering. The youth expect and will demand a more participatory role in society, politics and governance of the nation. Social, religious and economic hierarchies cannot be magically obliterated but are increasingly frowned upon among the urban, educated. Families walk into restaurants with their domestic help and eat together. This was rare a decade ago. Most urban schools are now co-educational, and more students with disability are studying in mainstream schools. The millennials are, therefore, expected to be more gender- and disability-sensitised.

Civic-minded and aware, Generation X have been assisted and encouraged to transition mindsets and drive social changes. They are aware of matters such as global climate change, conservation, waste management, traffic congestion. This past Diwali, there was a significant decrease in fireworks and crackers — a movement driven primarily by school children. At individual levels too, school kids are involving themselves in social causes. Schoolchildren in a Bengaluru school started a drive to collect old school books and stationery for students from poor families. Social media, for all its apparent flaws, has been a powerful platform for the propagation of ideas, for support of good work.

A country of 1.2 billion people faces immense challenges on all fronts, and the growing awareness of social discrepancies and problems are driving children as young as eight to innovate. Ceiling fans powered by windmill on the roof; spray-on gloves for garbage collectors and labourers; cushioned helmets for construction workers; movable traffic dividers for traffic congestion; wheelchair that converts into crutches; and a low-cost Braille printer — these are all innovations by school students.

Helped by education and awareness of the world they live in, young people are rejecting the politics of vote banks and appeasement. For too long the educated middle classes have been accused of apathy towards the electoral process, but this is changing. There were 10 million first-time voters in our general elections two years ago.

Women & family

Twenty-six-year-old Chanda lives in a rented room with another girl. She cooks in seven homes, earning Rs 3,000 per home. A gutsy girl who commutes on a bicycle and rattles off the names of dishes she can prepare, she confides that her husband left her and their six-year-old daughter for another woman, so she moved from Kolkata to Bengaluru to work. When Nasreen’s husband began to demand her earnings from the odd jobs with which she sent her two children to a private school, she refused. He left her. When asked her how she would manage on her own, she showed no sign of worry and replied matter-of-factly that she would just need to work harder. The story of these women is the story of thousands determined to turn gender bias on its head.

The taboos of women living alone, being unmarried, remarried, divorced, single will perish as more women seeking their rightful place in society stop caring. Aware of their rights, girls are eager to study, earn and be independent. More and more girls are caring for and supporting their aged parents. With women getting into top jobs and involving themselves in advocacy and decision-making, there will be greater pay equity and safeguards of their rights. Recently, women bus conductors in Kerala quit en masse over disparity in pay — the men were being paid almost double the salary for the same work. More millennials were born to liberal parents, mixed marriages, and have parents who are relatively more accepting of their lifestyle changes.

More relaxed societal norms also mean there is a healthy mixing of the genders and there is no rush to marry, which has been the only acceptable man-woman relationship in our society. At the age the previous generation began to feel the heat of ‘settling down’, the millennials continue to focus on career, travel, taking sabbaticals to try new things, study or pursue a new calling. Long-distance relationships and marriages, late marriage and childbearing are common. Clearly, we are a less intrusive society and with more and more youngsters moving out of their parents’ home as early as after school to study or to work, the generation has more freedom to make their marital choices. Relocation within the country and abroad for work or education is also a non-issue.

Work is play

More students are opting to work after graduation to finance their higher education. Many are taking a year off to figure out what they want to do; to travel, or to gain work experience for better university prospects. Treasa M, who was unclear about her future, took up a job with a multinational immediately after graduation, so while the paychecks keep coming, she has time to figure out what she wants to do.

We have seen generations of men and women sitting uneasy in their jobs — careers that were thrust upon them because some careers were considered more stable and respectable. Many among these, especially women, unable to balance work and family responsibilities, could never have fulfilling careers. Six months into her Chemical Engineering degree, Mansi A decided it wasn’t what she wanted to do with her life and quit to study Environmental Science.

Her parents supported her decision and the six months she was between courses, she utilised in learning a foreign language. Apoorv S, who secured a well-paying, cushy job with a finance company immediately after his post graduation, is preparing to move to the social sector for more gratifying work and use of his education.
Many students are bypassing corporate jobs, where the burnout is quick, for a career in the social sector. There is a definite inclination towards the social sector with volunteer training and social entrepreneurship programmes becoming more popular.

‘Best fit’ is what one hears repeatedly from Generation X. They are unwilling to compromise. The start-up generation is following their heart over the security of salaried jobs. Though the IT industry is still a big draw for youngsters, students are rejecting seats in poorly-equipped private colleges.

The millennials are up for risks and challenges. They live in the moment and choose experience over assets. They are in no hurry to buy the first car or house. Challenging work and excitement are their driving forces. They grew up knowing their rights, pursuing their interests and hobbies; parents and teachers gave them the freedom to take decisions and find their own solutions — they want this from their careers.

A two-way street

Even as we try and sound upbeat about this young face of India, we must realise that they will turn out only as good or as bad as their education and upbringing. The New Year eve’s blot of shame on the face of a very cosmopolitan and urban-liberal Bengaluru cannot be pushed out of our recall. Have we done enough in terms of providing this generation with direction, gender sensitivity, civic and social awareness?

Are the benefits of education and financial security reaching all sections in all parts of the country? The rise in caste-based agitations and demands for reservations is a warning that the youth is angry and frustrated. If the employment rate looks okay, it is because a large part of the population is working in the informal sector. The growing demand for education indicates that the youth will demand jobs in the formal or service sector. Despite increased wealth and a burgeoning urban middle class, a vast majority of India’s population remains illiterate and impoverished.

Millennials live in the villages too. Will there be enough income-generating activities that keep people interested in agriculture? The average earning in urban areas is still better than in rural areas, and education and training are by and large oriented towards urban life. What are the living conditions the few big cities with their infrastructure and resources already stretched offer to the growing numbers constantly migrating for work and a better life?

Monday, February 06, 2017

Rose cookies

It is the longest I’ve stayed away from that which will always be home - three and a half years. Bai opened one padlock, turned the key three times in another lock and I entered the home whose doors were seldom locked. Never when one came home. Everything was as it is, as it was. I did not turn to look at the empty chair where mummy sat. Always, for the past many years. I would enter and she would lean forward for my hug and I would each time be surprised at how little there was of her, how she was slowly shrinking in that corner chair – invisible if you didn’t know where to look for her but very much the vantage point for her to know what was going on in the house. Earlier, she had sat on the chair by the window, next to the phone and each time the gate opened with its distinct metal clank, she lifted the lace curtain to look out. Outside this window, she would have Bai place pots of seasonal flowers so she would always see those.

I entered the kitchen without looking around. I had my woolens to wash. Everything was in its place – the plates, the bowls, the pans all in their slots so permanent that one never had to think before reaching out for the slightly dented ande-wala pan, or the good peeler. I did not look at the pantry knowing it may be empty, a sight I did not want my memories to be overlapped with. Straightaway, I lifted the lid and tossed my clothes into the washing machine telling myself I knew exactly how to run it. At first, it didn’t start. This was my home, these were familiar things, I cannot forget, I chided myself. The water inlet was turned off, of course. I watched my sweaters take half-spins as the familiar, soft whirr wafted through the silent house. 

I had to show Bai the carton I wanted and we entered my parents’ bedroom. Except for the disconcerting stillness, there was nothing amiss. In the corner, where the two cupboards met, stood Papa’s chair. It wasn’t supposed to be there. It was always in the Study and later in a corner of the drawing-room. In this unreachable, unsittable corner, it meant disuse. It meant it would not be used anymore. Nothing here was meant for use anymore. All the memories of that chair, of the father bent over books, and papers and typewriters on a table yet never too busy to be interrupted to be dropped to a friend’s place, to sample my first dum aloo, to take me swimming or to the French class. I came out before Bai turned to look and did not go into the other room that had once belonged to me.

I went again the next day to find the carton with my things. My school report cards, greeting cards, the Cherry Chimes, the school dairies were all in there as was the big book of knitting that I will never be able to decode but reading which mummy knitted for us sweater after sweater in soft wool with complicated cables patterns. We packed what I wanted and left.

I went back. To Mummy’s cupboard. I told myself it was to look if there may be something of mine there – the school badge maybe – Blue House. But there was only a neat row of her well-worn, soft sarees. All familiar – in which she had sat reading the newspaper by the window, her long white hair braided into a low bun; which she wore to go saree shopping for me; which she wore to make the murrabba, the mattris, the kadhi, the kachoris, the achaars and in which she stood looking as I left, my sobs swelling in my throat till we turned the corner and she could see me no more. I touched the still sarees lightly. Then I gripped them with both my hands and buried my head into them, sniffing hard, praying that I smell her, praying that as I reach through the soft material I will find her soft body and touch her one last time.

The two days I had were full but I could not go back after three and a half years without meeting the Mehras across the road and the Grewals at the far end of the lane. The Mehra kids grew up calling her Naniji like the other grandchildren and with the Grewals, the ties go deep and back many decades. We have kept in touch over Facebook and phone so there was a bridge over the memories where we met and talked of the present – work, families, this one and that.

I finally gathered enough courage to walk to Masih auntie’s house a short distance from mummy’s. I didn’t realize I was coming after so long that I had to ask a passing child where she lived. Auntie took time opening the door and looked at me surprised. The familiar gold hoops still hung at the very edge of her elongated ear lobes and the cheeks had gone more hollow. She shuffled on her feet and we sat side by side on the sofa. The house was dark, the tube light in the hall had conked off. She was apologetic, ‘So many times I have called the electrician but they don’t come.’ Then she began talking of ‘teri ma’. 

She was there when I was born in March, in the hospital rocking me on her lap while correcting exam papers, she tells me. She got me a black shift dress with sequins on the front for the song I loved to sing – badan pe sitare. This she doesn’t have to tell me. This is family folklore. She and mummy baked the most fragrant and moist cakes in the big oven with the red door that was the size of a doll house and was kept on the gas flame for baking. They measured each ingredient holding it up on a scale, a real tarazu, against eggs. They discussed knitting patterns and mummy went to make her perfect, each-grain separate, khila-khila pulao when Masih auntie gave parties. Yet, they never called each other by their first names. Mummy always called her Mrs Masih and she called her, Mrs Tripathi.

So she sat on the sofa next to me talking about Mummy. There was nothing else to talk about. A raw, pulsating wound that time will not heal lay exposed between us. She was not wearing her hearing aid so I could not speak. She talked about the wonderful days with teri ma. She pointed to, behind me at the table where she has kept Mummy’s framed photo. I did not turn to look. She said she walks up to our house daily and misses teri ma.

I had steeled myself for this homecoming for three and a half years. I don’t easily cry in front of others. I did not cry when I saw the photos of my parents hanging in the closed house, nor when I found the refrigerator switched on as it had been for the last three and a half years, or when the washing machine ran just like it had done mummy’s clothes yesterday, nor when I did not see the madhumalti with its fragrant bunches of pink and white hugging the pillar on the porch, or when I woke up in the bedroom upstairs and saw in the pale morning light the harshingar that I would look at from my bedroom downstairs, standing on tiptoes to reach the windows to make me feel at home. And here I was, tears rolling down my face so silent, so easy that it seemed wrong to wipe them away. I hoped that in the failing light she would not notice but thankfully she only said, tu mat ro. Like the entire loss was hers to bear, like she had to free me of the grief so I could go away again while she walked up to our house to look at it from outside, never walking in pushing the front door open and letting herself inside, to sit through mummy’s silence or her chiding – why don’t you wear your hearing aid? And why won’t your sugar be high, you ate two burfees yesterday… and then eat a meal together.

Nursing a cold, I woke up this morning craving comfort and ate the two last rose cookies before the absurdity of eating cookies first thing in the morning could begin to gnaw. A cast iron cookie mould must lie somewhere in the unused kitchen of my mother’s house. Rose cookies she and Masih auntie made when we were children. I must have watched fascinated as the flower shaped mould was dipped into the sweet batter first and then gently eased into a kadhai brimming with hot oil. The kadhai would have soon filled up with flowers swimming on the oil, flowers the size of our palms. 

PS: I wrote this after I came back from Bhopal and did not think Masih auntie would follow Mummy so soon. Today, February 6, 2017, Masih aunty left us to be with her favourite people above. 

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

So subterranean

So subterranean

Shefali Tripathi Mehta, Nov 13, 2016,
War witness

bunker tales. The entrance to Battlebox, formerly a network of bunkers built during WWII. (Photo by author).

‘We dance round in a ring and suppose, But the Secret sits in the middle and knows.’ 
Robert Frost’s lines came to mind as we walked into the underground bunkers that were the British army headquarters in Singapore during World War II. Nearly four decades after it was abandoned, this underground facility, sitting under the tranquil Fort Canning in the middle of the bustling city-state, was discovered serendipitously by a young journalist.

The Battlebox, as it is called, was a bomb-proof network of bunkers which served as the Command Centre for the 1,00,000 strong British and Commonwealth forces, among them 60,000 Indians, along with Australians and Malayans during the Battle of Singapore in 1945. It was here that Britain’s decision to surrender to the Japanese was taken, which, in Churchill’s words, was the “worst disaster and largest capitulation in British history.”

Pathway paradise
So, beyond the Sentosas and the safaris, there is this fascinating colonial-district walking trail for history buffs. Finding all guided tours booked, we decided to DIY. I read up on the Internet, printed out maps, and highlighted the milestones and monuments. Taxis go right up to the Fort Canning Centre, but we preferred the slow exploration on foot. So armed with my notes, a good breakfast, hat, water and walking shoes, we began our climb to the Fort from the rear (Clemenceau Avenue / River Valley Road). It’s a scenic elevation to the top, with the walking path spiralling through lush green grass and canopied by majestic heritage trees.

The trail is wonderfully aided with plaques carrying bits of Singapore’s history from as early as the 12th century. The hill was then called the Bukit Larangan, which in Malay means the Forbidden Hill, presumably to keep the commoners away as it was the sacred burial grounds of Malay rulers, or because a natural spring flowed there, where the royal ladies bathed.

When Sir Stamford Raffle, the founder of modern Singapore, landed in Singapore in 1819 and the British consolidated their presence, this hill came to be known as the Government Hill. Raffle built a house here, which no longer exists. In 1859, the Government Hill was renamed Fort Canning Hill after the Governor General and first Viceroy of India, Lord Canning. By the 1920s it had become the headquarters and barracks of the British army.

Today, there is no fort on the top, only the underground reservoir which was constructed in 1926. We walked past the reservoir and saw one of the remaining gates of the fort and the two remaining structures of the Old Married Soldiers’ Quarters. As we began our descent to the other side and stopped to look at the only remaining sally port, we met two gentlemen coming out of the bunkers. One of them was the tour guide of the Battlebox. We learnt that the Battlebox Museum had officially opened for viewing only on June 28, 2016, after a two-year restoration. We decided to take the guided tour.
The tour through the bunker that was built in the 1930s took us back in time to February 15, 1942, the day that marked the British Army’s humiliating defeat.

On a bunker tour

The Battlebox has been recreated to resemble the crucial days of deliberations and difficult decisions. Complete with wax figures of the military officers in charge, led by the GOC Malaya Command, Lieutenant-General Arthur Percival, it exudes the gloom and helplessness before the surrender. It was a state-of-the-art communication facility that today displays, very authentically, some interesting mock-ups like that of the original telephone exchange and the Guns Operations Room with a plotting table. One of the three original, huge air-filtration plants to counter gas attacks, emergency power generators, the emergency rooftop exit, and the toilets marked Clerks (with original graffiti) and Officers, many war artefacts, war maps are also on display. The narrative is suitably augmented by several real film footages. It debunks many myths about the reasons for the British surrender, presenting the dismal circumstances due to food and water shortages and the heavy loss of civilian and military lives.

Hollow years
After the British surrender, the Japanese are believed to have used at least the signals rooms till the end of occupation in 1945. When the British returned to Singapore after the war, Fort Canning became the military headquarters; the Battlebox, which had been stripped bare by looters, lay abandoned. It was forgotten in the years that followed, which saw the merger of Singapore with Malaysia in 1963, and its consequent independence in 1965 when the army moved out of Fort Canning and the Singapore Command and Staff College came up in its place. During this time, it was decided to seal the Battlebox off lest someone strayed in and lost their way in the labyrinth. It was 20 years later, in 1988, that a young journalist, on an investigative beat, discovered the Battlebox entrance just as he was giving up hope of finding it. Refurbished, it now offers us a gripping account of history.

The Battlebox tour is undoubtedly the most intriguing experience at Fort Canning, but also on the grounds are several other historical monuments and relics of the past like the Gothic gate, Cupolas, the first Christian cemetery, Arts Centre, Spice Garden, the first ‘Experimental and Botanical Garden’, and a nine-pound cannon.

Holding our tongues

Holding our tongues

Shefali Tripathi Mehta, September 11, 2016
I watched fascinated as my English-speaking neighbour broke into fluent Marathi with her husband.

They are both Maharashtrians from Bombay, but have lived abroad for many years before settling down in Bangalore. I asked if her daughters speak in Marathi, too. No, she said. “Every time we spoke to them in Marathi, they replied in English,” she added. Now in their 20s, both girls have lost touch with their native tongue.

An Australian friend once remarked how wonderful it was that most of us, Indians, knew at least two languages. In cosmopolitan India, in an increasingly aspirational, upwardly-mobile society where all barriers of religion and region are fast-blurring, English, which was the language spoken outside home, is fast becoming the language spoken at homes, with immediate family. Many urban Indian families are now completely English-speaking.

The use of the term ‘mother tongue’ may be unsuitable in our evolving awareness and sensitivity to gender roles, and we’re better off calling it the ‘native’ or the ‘first’ language — still meaning the ‘mother tongue’ — the language the child hears first and is spoken to by the immediate carer, still more often than not, a mother. The acquisition of the mother tongue is instinctive and natural. The child hears the language spoken by the parents, grandparents, older siblings and other family members and learns it from them. These days, children hear and learn English. Whose is the mother tongue?

Shifting family dynamics; mixed-marriages — what was earlier grouped within the term ‘inter-caste’ but are actually inter-regional, inter-religion or inter-cultural; movement of people across states and countries; and greater awareness of different cultures through the medium of social networks are some of the reasons that have set in motion this change in our linguistic makeup.

In mixed marriages, where both parents do not speak the same native language, they generally prefer to talk to their children in English. To some extent it also helps circumvent the sticky question of which of the two native languages should be taught or would take precedence. Sandra’s children speak only English, which is her own mother tongue, while her husband Soumik’s is Bengali. Soumik would like the children to know Bengali, and tries to speak with them in it, but the kids, not having heard it spoken at home, are conscious of their halting Bangla. The conversations don’t get too far. 

Alisha’s mother tongue would be Haryanvi, if she was called upon to name one, but having lived across the country as a defence kid, Hindi is what came to her naturally. When she married a Mangalorean, she never felt the need to learn his native tongue, Tulu. Their two school-going kids picked up Hindi living in Delhi. Alisha could not teach the kids Tulu. She thinks the onus was on the father. Does language become a barrier when they visit the husband’s side of the family, especially with elderly members and those who speak only Tulu? Yes, it does, she concedes, but it’s not such a problem that will make her learn a new language that she has no ear for.

In migrating for work, people are increasingly moving from joint family set-ups. The elders who cared for or stayed with the kids and from whom they picked the native tongues are generally absent from their early lives. How do kids who speak only in English converse with their grandparents who do not speak the language? Many parents admitted that living in different cities and countries, the children meet grandparents only occasionally and get by somehow, adding of course that communication does not really need a language. Very interestingly, in a reverse learning situation, one parent in a mixed marriage shared that when her kids started to speak in English, grandparents on both sides who spoke Tamil and Hindi decided it was a great opportunity for them to start learning English too. This, we know, is not uncommon. More and more grandparents are learning the language of their grandkids — English.

Nanny tongue, local tongue
Raghu, a restaurateur whose mother tongue is Tamil and his wife’s is Hindi, does not think mixed marriages are as much the reason for teaching kids English as is the phobia of school admissions. Nursery school admission, flawed and random as they are, place undue weightage on the child’s ‘interview’ — their ability to understand and respond to questions in English. I know of a harried mother who taught her pre-kindergarten child the name of each object in two languages, in the mother tongue and in English — kela-banana, water-paani. This is more likely to confuse the child and lead them to prefer one language over the other, and maybe gradually end up learning only one language properly. Languages each have their own, unique flow, rhythm and idiom. They cannot be acquired by words alone.

The school admission phobia did not bother Priya Singh, a software professional who let her toddler learn Hindi, their first language. Priya was very clear from the beginning that home was where her kid would learn Hindi. As for the all-important English, she was confident the child would pick it in no time playing with other kids and at school.

Raghu’s daughter picked up Hindi from her nanny. Many other kids of working parents, left with ayahs at home or in crèches, acquire as their primary language the language of their carers. I recently met a nine-year old who is fluent in four languages — the Hindi of his nanny, Spanish of his mother, Bengali of his father and English. The early years are the best time for children to learn to speak in native languages. Parents who did not think it a good idea when their kids were small, have regretted it later when they meet kids fluent in their first languages and well as in English.

First languages have emotions attached to them. And emotions are best expressed in one’s first language. Rahul, a Tamilian married to Swati from UP, concurs. Their two school-going children speak in English. As busy software professionals, they left the kids at day-care and English was the language the kids learnt to express themselves in. Sometimes now, Rahul wishes his kids would understand Tamil, especially when he has to paraphrase expressions that are best captured in his own tongue.

Another way we acquire language, especially a local language, is through social interactions — with neighbours and those we interact with in the course of our day — the house-help, drivers, istriwalas, security guards, subziwalas and shopkeepers. But changing lifestyles have impacted this too. Shopping malls and large chain grocery stores have little need for interpersonal communication — whatever little exchanges are required are carried out in English that most salespersons and attendants these days are equipped with.

For Indians moving from one state to another, there used to be the regional language barrier between them and the locals. English has obliterated this to a great extent. Two decades ago, all the local words that I learnt at the subzimandi — kottambari, soppu, batani, sapota, ondu, eradu, eydu, are redundant today. Even the subziwalas call fruits and vegetables by their English names. But of course, when it comes to demolishing barriers of the heart, the one thing we can do is to talk with the locals in their language. In the words of Nelson Mandela, “If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.”

First language first

Living in Delhi’s Chittaranjan Park, referred to as ‘little Kolkata’, where Bengali is the street language, I asked a two-year old playing House what she was cooking. “I’m making tarkari,” she replied, and looking up at me, immediately corrected herself and said, “subzi”. The child knew I did not speak Bengali and she also had the Hindustani vocabulary to translate for me.

Children have an amazing ability to assimilate. They learn sounds and pronunciation by mimicking. It is a myth that they cannot learn two or more languages at the same time and that it will confuse them. When the child is still acquiring the first language, they can as easily acquire a second and a third one. Parents’ anxiety on this account is totally unfounded. Sometimes children may mix up languages, but that they do while learning just one language too.

By not teaching our children our first languages first, we may be bringing up a generation that knows and uses only English. Besides losing our native languages, we may be losing out on other advantages that multilingual children and adults have. Several studies have shown that multilingual people are better adjusted, more adaptable, and have more acceptance of cultural differences. Learning at least two languages makes people more receptive to more languages. All the fears of children not being able to learn ‘good English’ later are unfounded. “You can never understand one language until you understand at least two.” (Geoffrey Willans)

Run out of lemons, I sat eating moong sprouts and commented that there would have been a great izafa in the taste with a dash of lemon. Sure enough, the daughter asks, “What’s ‘izafa’?” Translating the Urdu word into Hindi or English would have been like explaining a joke. Go figure! I tell her.

Emerald Blades (Poetry review)

Of silence crying

Shefali Tripathi Mehta, Jul 10, 2016
Emerald Blades, Reijul Sachdev, Leadstart, 2016, pp 148, Rs. 175
Emerald Blades
Reijul Sachdev
2016, pp 148
Rs. 175

Come beside me into darkness,
Where Madness waits and Beauty sings;
Come walk beside me in the moonlight
And sing to me of wilder things.

These lines from the poem Wilder Things, from this collection by Reijul Sachdev, scores full on form and content and is among the finest ones in this collection along with Ebony and Ivory, Where The Wild, Wild Things Run Free, and Lies in Darkness. The jacket blurb mentions that the poems spring from Sachdev’s experience as a borderline schizophrenic. Let that not deceive the reader into thinking this collection is dark or depressing. The mood is far from defeatist.

It is of a mind trying to keep itself steady by shutting out the ‘creatures of the mind’. In the light of this, his heightened sensibilities, the title becomes plain — blades of grass that can appear as double-edged swords and alternatively as nature’s bounty offering succour. The colour emerald or green is representative of balance; of that which creates the equilibrium between reason and emotions. 

The dialectic between the emotional, joyous response to idyllic scenes of nature, of letting oneself go and that of a world-weariness, of being confined to a life of duties is a major theme. Like a mind meandering as a stream carving its course, he allows himself and the reader the beauty of the journey but stops short at the fall. His rational mind cautions and he knows that once on the brink, the only way forward is to return. 

So when life seems harsh and men unjust,
Know this is meant to be 
And do not hearken to the tunes 
Of the wild things running free. 
(Where The Wild, Wild Things Run Free)

There are poignant lines that suggest the heroic effort of one resisting ‘the heady pull of seductive suicide’; and flashes of depression. He writes of an entire suicidal episode in Remembered Glory; ‘A terrible anger to destroy’ in Intoxicating; of the ‘Mind’s own endless night’ in Masquerade; and ‘Like the man who talks to himself / To keep from hearing the silence crying,’ in Out of Tune. There is also a keen awareness that success brings both gratification and challenges:

But while each hill when bathed in 
Helps uplift our weary mood, 
Every summit in the darkness 
Is a lonely place to brood.
(To The Hill-T).

There are recurring themes of regret, old age, guilt, falling, loneliness, the pain of beauty and happiness, society as a prison, death, destiny and the world of eternal duty. Juxtaposed as these are with the images of nature — sea of emerald grass, golden hues of the sun, silver skies, mauve twilights — there is a brilliant play of colours and symbols. The symbolism of the moon which heightens distress, or the wind which scatters friends and dreams, hold up the harmony.

Poetry has to be read with intuition. There is lilt and cadence in simple lines that draws the reader in: 

When walking in the woodlands, 
Listening to the breeze, 
Rolling in the meadows, 
Talking to the trees.
(Where The Wild, Wild Things Run Free)

Some poems in this collection are too suffused with images and words which could have been gently trimmed to make the narrative taut. But there is much that is beautiful and profound here, as in the poem Rainbow’s End, just as I was growing a little weary of the derivative images, a sudden turn of phrase and thought sprung a fresh surprise:

If you didn’t take things for granted,
Then you’d know which one is true:
Have you been chasing after my gold? 
Or has my gold been chasing you?

Sachdev, who admits to being a classicist, has kept to it in form and diction. The poems are peppered with mythical references — Midas, Oedipus, Arthur, Adam, Odin, the tower of Babel, Camelot, magic, rainbows and pots of gold, leprechauns, nymphs, faeries, warriors, travellers and many archaic spellings and expressions like the ‘mead of twilight’, ‘sally forth’, ‘good sir’. The rhyming is a little forced in places and multisyllabic words take away from the fluidity of the poems.

There are images that do not blend well, as in the poem Intoxicating, the leitmotif is of life brewing as wine and yet, in the middle of it comes the clichéd image of the patchwork quilt of memories. In Silent Space and Moonlighting, the first-person narrative changes to the third person abruptly. Even if used as a poetic device, it is to no great effect. Each image, every word, must enhance the core of a poem. This rawness in Sachdev’s craft can acquire a polish with a little help, perhaps from a sensitive mentor.

Some of these poems should certainly find place in modern Indian anthologies. This is a courageous debut collection that validates the fact that poetry heals.